Exploring Generalization In Psychology

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The concepts of discrimination and generalization in psychology can be difficult to tackle due to the complexity of their connotation. While discrimination in psychology is generally thought to be related to the concept of classical conditioning, it can also refer to the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

In this article, we will explore the concepts of discrimination, generalization and how psychology and individuals can be affected by both.

Is discrimination affecting your mental health?

Stimulus generalization in classical conditioning

The concepts of classical and operant conditioning served as crucial components of early theories on learning and the development of new behaviors. Classical conditioning can be defined as a type of conditioning that pairs an automatic response to a specific stimulus. To put it simply, classical conditioning is a type of learning that happens unconsciously. The most famous example of classical conditioning to many is the theory of Pavlov’s dog—a psychology book mainstay.

In 1897, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov is thought to have published his theory and findings on classical conditioning that can hold relevancy in the practices of behavioral therapy to this day. Pavlov is thought to have originally begun with an experiment related to the canine digestive system. During this time, he noticed the dogs began salivating when seeing the people who would feed them.

Many believe that this sparked him to hypothesize that the reason the dogs were salivating was because they now associated their caretakers with being fed. To test this theory, Pavlov began ringing a bell prior to feeding the dogs. Just as he’d anticipated, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell—regardless of whether or not food was presented to them.  

Though the theory was thought to be originally tested on canines, all humans are generally exposed to forms of classical conditioning throughout the course of our lives. Examples of this can exist in advertising. For example: Ads for sneakers might often feature successful athletes in order to condition people to associate their brand with athletic success. Similarly, ads for fast food might feature delicious-looking food to make someone feel hungry for that specific food item. 

What is generalization psychology? 

To fully grasp the impact that classical conditioning can have, it can be helpful to review the concept of generalization. Psychology has long sought to explain the ways humans learn to make deductions and simplify information. Generalization is defined by many as an aspect of conditioning that refers to the brain's ability to generalize similar things—possibly influencing a pre-set response. 

Little Albert’s generalized fear response to similar stimuli

Many believe that the most famous example of generalization came from an experiment performed by behavioral psychologist John Watson in the year 1920. The “Little Albert” experiment is thought to have worked by introducing a 9-month-old child to a white rat and observing their interactions. 

Initially, Little Albert enjoyed playing with the rat. Over time, John Watson would make a loud noise behind Little Albert’s head while he was playing with the rat, which might have startled the baby. After doing this repeatedly, the psychologist found evidence that suggested that Little Albert became scared of the white rat without the presence of the loud noise. 

This conditioned response extended to other items that resembled white rabbit. In additional trials, when the little boy was exposed to other stimuli, including a fur coat and a Santa Claus mask, he exhibited the same response. This suggests that the emotional response to the conditioned stimulus—the white rat—was generalized across similar items. Fear generalization did not occur with all objects, though. When shown a teddy bear, Little Albert did not respond with fear. This ability to distinguish between stimuli is called stimulus discrimination. 

The concepts of generalization and classical conditioning are relevant not only to the field of experimental psychology but also to numerous facets of everyday life. The findings of the Little Albert experiment have been applied to everything from classroom behavior to machine learning. Though it is a classic experiment that helped illustrate how stimulus generalization works, Watson’s study has been criticized for being unethical, and its findings have been questioned. 

The role of generalization in the learning process

Generalization helps us understand how humans can process large amounts of information taken in from widely varying stimuli. It allows us to respond correctly to stimuli we’ve never encountered or utilize a skill gained in one setting in a variety of other settings. For example, if you were rewarded for playing toys with a sibling, your prior experience may have led you to engage in this behavior at school or in other similar situations.

This is not the only application of generalization, however. In other cases, generalization can evoke negative responses. For example, research shows that social anxiety is associated with overgeneralization. According to experts, individuals with social anxiety can, like most people, be conditioned to respond to a specific social stimulus with fear. However, they may apply their response to more types of stimuli than people without social anxiety. 

What is discrimination? 

Discrimination is generally defined as noticing and responding to differences among various objects, ideas or stimuli. Unfortunately, the more commonly understood form of discrimination for many is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of people and groups based on characteristics such as race, gender, age or sexual orientation.

Though certain laws exist to safeguard housing and employment for all in the United States (such as The Civil Rights Act, The Fair Housing Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act), discrimination may still occur.

While major bias can cause harm, less obvious examples of discrimination can be harmful as well. These less obvious displays of discrimination are typically referred to as “microaggressions” by many and may come in the form of being treated with less courtesy or respect based on aspects of a person that aren’t likely to change—such as their appearance, race or age.

According to the American Psychological Association, discrimination is generally formally considered to be a public health issue

Additionally, research suggests that experiencing discrimination can lead to numerous stress-related health conditions, possibly having both physical and psychological implications.

The often harmful and damaging nature of discrimination can have extreme effects on mental health. Understanding the full range of these experiences can promote a more empathetic and sensitive society. 

If you are living with the negative effects of discrimination, it can be helpful to remember that being discriminated against is generally no fault of your own. In situations where you feel you are being discriminated against, it can be helpful to seek support from those around you, possibly prompting validation and support for your personal experiences.  

What are the possible benefits of therapy when it comes to discrimination and generalization? 

It can be common for the presence of classical conditioning to lead to a variety of challenges throughout life. For example: Conditioning that leads to the development of an intense association can lead to nervousness or stress surrounding an object or situation you’ve been conditioned to fear. Additionally, experiencing major bias or microaggressions based on one’s identity or other defining characteristics can be the result of discrimination and can lead to negative effects on one’s mental and physical health. 

Due to the complexities of generalization and discrimination, it can be best to work with a mental health professional if you feel you are experiencing struggles related to the concept of conditioning—such as discrimination. This can feel overwhelming, however, if you don’t feel comfortable going out or being vulnerable in new environments. For those who experiencing these feelings toward intervention, online therapy might serve as a more affordable alternative to in-person therapy. 

Is discrimination affecting your mental health?

In recent studies, experts have found evidence suggesting that online therapy can be highly effective in reducing symptoms of certain mental health conditions, including those that can be associated with depression and anxiety. These can co-occur as a result of discrimination or generalization in some. Additional study suggested that online therapy as a modality can be equally as effective as face-to-face therapeutic intervention. 


Understanding the concept of classical conditioning and how it relates to generalization and discrimination can be helpful in identifying the root causes of certain beliefs and behaviors. If you are experiencing challenges due to related aspects such as unfair treatment, you may benefit from speaking with an online therapist. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
Explore mental health options online
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started